Chosen from a pool of thousands by director John Hillcoat to play the part of The Boy in his adaptation of Cormack McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, a then 11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee was called upon to do things no normal kid from Australia should have been able to handle. But coached by his professional actor dad, Smit-McPhee was soon facing off opposite the likes of Viggo Mortenson — “each the other world’s entire” — appearing in every scene of what amounts to both a father-son love story and post-apocalyptic survivalist two-hander. And Smit-McPhee is no one-hit wonder: Now 13, he’ll next play the lead in Matt Reeves’ remake of last year’s Swedish vampire instant-classic, Let the Right One In.
We talked to Kodi before that news was announced, during which he gave us some insights into how he creates a character, told us about his bonding time with Viggo staring at freeze-dried cadavers, and scared our socks off with a ghost story from the set of The Road.
John Hillcoat said that he was amazed when he watched your videotaped audition, as you chose one of the most difficult scenes in the movie, which you performed with your dad. Did you find it challenging working with such dark material?
Not really when you do the work. I remember in one of the interviews I did they said I was like an alien who could turn it on and off. And that’s not the thing — it’s that I did the work beforehand. That’s why I can turn it on and off. You’ve got to make a whole different character of it — what happened before this, what happens after. What’s not in the script that I need to put in there.
What was your impression of the Boy when you first read the script? What were some of the feelings you experienced?
When I read something I get the character’s vibe, and I felt like he was really curious. So that was the first thing that popped into my head. Then I read the book, after I had read the script a few times. And it was pretty much near the same as the script, so that was good to know. Then I got the character a bit more. I started writing about him.
About the character’s back story, that kind of thing?
Sort of. Stuff about where he lives, what his mom’s like, even though she’s really not in the script or book that much. But I still had to know her.
It sounds like you do more homework than adult actors. Was it your family that taught you how to research a role so thoroughly?
My mom kind of stay backs, does the normal stuff, looks after my 3-year-old brother. But my dad has been acting for 23 years. He is the one who helped me to start with the audition and this process. When we go to the shoot, he just leaves me in the director’s hands, and I’ve got everything in my head and I let it go. When it’s time to do it, me and him maybe read it the night before to get used to it. So it’s basically my dad that does it.
Did you have time to bond with Viggo before filming?
Yeah, we had a few weeks. Maybe two. We read the script together and did a few scenes and stuff. Also in the rehearsals we’d talk a lot. And also we went to the Bodies exhibit together. My dad just let me go with Viggo then. We’d just drive around and stuff. It was really cool.
That’s funny, because there’s a lot of talk of eating people in the film, and you see a lot of gory stuff — more than I even want to see. And at that Bodies exhibit, real people’s insides are on display like meat. Did you talk about that at all?
Yeah, we did a little bit. Viggo said it actually helped a lot seeing that stuff inside, because that’s what the boy would see a lot.
So what’s your regular, day-to-day life like when you’re not starring in movies?
When I know I’m not doing any auditions, I go to the skate park on my scooter or my bike. I’ll go to my friend’s house. Stuff like that. Normal stuff.
What bands do you like?
I like everything from hard-style techno to rock and roll.
Were there any scenes in The Road that you had a blast doing?
I think people would not expect this to be fun, you know when we were running and he had me on his shoulder? That wasn’t fun. [Laughs] But in between those scenes, we would find all these beetles and put them in this container with holes in it, and let them go the next day. And I did sword fighting with the audio guy. But there would have been other things that were fun as well.
“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. That house was freaky.”
The scene where you explore the home — the scariest scene in the movie. What was that like?
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. That house was freaky. They said there was a boy that once lived there who was a bit freaky. And when we went upstairs, he had engraved stuff on the walls — writing and stuff. And I was like, “OK. This is weird.” And then we did the shooting, when we went down into the cellar, that was pretty freaky. Even for me.
Creepy! Got any other scary stories from the shoot?
There was a ghost! We were filming at this haunted hotel next to an amusement park in Pennsylvania that had burned down in a fire. There were people who had died in the fire at a wedding at a hotel that night, and one of them was this little girl. She was supposedly living in a room across from where I was studying with my teacher. I looked inside, and all her stuff was still there. All this vintage stuff. And I thought, that doesn’t look right.
So I said to my teacher, “Do you think they just get paid to tell the stories?” And just as I said that, Viggo’s jacket was sitting inside this tin bin. And it jumped up out of it! There was nothing else in that bin. I checked it. And I ran downstairs and I said, “This thing jumped out of the bin.” Nobody believed me. But later, someone on the set heard a bell upstairs, and she thought it was one of the grips. But she went up to see who had rung it and there was no one there. When she left, the bell started going on again. Then it went off, then the light started flickering. After that, people finally believed me.
What are you doing next?
I’ve got something I’m interested in, but it’s not 100% yet.